‘You need intuition and data working together’: Habit Founder & CEO Neil Grimmer on modern marketing

In this episode of 'Challenger Masters', eatbigfish partner Mark Barden is joined by founder and CEO of Habit, Neil Grimmer, as they take a walk along the disused railway tracks in Oakland, California. Habit is a personalized nutrition company created for anyone wanting to be their best through the transformative nature of food. In this interview, Neil discusses his learnings from his journey with Plum Organics, data marketing versus intuition, and how to work smarter, not harder.

What inspired you to start Habit?

I was all consumed with Plum Organics. In trying to drive healthier food for babies my own health went by the wayside. After we sold it to Campbell's my wife told me that after taking care of this company for eight years, I now had to start taking care of myself. I was 50 pounds heavier than when I started the company. With a strong kick in the ass from my wife, I set off on a wellness journey with some personal nutrition specialists figuring out how to tune my body to be as healthy as possible. That led me to start habit.

Do you see yourself personally as a challenger?

When I sold my company instead of going and buying fancy things, I got sleeve tattoos. I think that's an indicator that I look at the world a little differently. Both Plum Organics and now Habit set out to disrupt the notions of the categories that we’ve played in historically and both came from the belief that there’s got to be a better way. In exploring that question, you have to feel very comfortable putting aside all the existing rules of the road. I would say yes.

What mistakes did you make on Plum Organics that you're keen to avoid this time with Habit?

I’m now a huge advocate of personal health in the workplace. It’s unacceptable for a CEO to be unhealthy as a by-product of their work. If you aren't physically, mentally and spiritually healthy, it’s hard to lead a healthy organisation, right? So I prioritise that now, where I didn’t before. We’ve built the whole company around nutrition, so everyone at Habit has gone through the personalized nutrition test and has access to fresh, healthy food every day.

Neil Grimmer outside Habit's new headquarters in Oakland.

Neil Grimmer outside Habit's new headquarters in Oakland.

What’s your view on the impact big data is having on marketing?

We’re all so enamoured with big data that we have walked away from intuition. It used to be that you'd hire an agency or an individual with incredible intuition, who would be that third eye and translate insights into ideas in a way that others could not. We’ve swung in recent years to thinking the answers are exclusively in the data. Data is invaluable but needs to be coupled with deep intimate knowledge of who you serve. It's intuition and data working together.

How important is purpose to the businesses you've built?

There's a story that still gets me choked up when I tell it. When at Plum Organics we heard about a boy named Harlan. A child terminally ill with brain cancer. His mother Jackie reached out to her Facebook friends asking if anyone could get hold of one of our pouches. It was the Raspberry Swirl Oatmeal Mashup - a product that was just recently discontinued but was Harlan's favourite. He chased chemotherapy with these pouches.

People suddenly starting emailing us asking for this product. Within a few hours our team had catalysed around this. We found 60 pouches still in the Bay Area and got them shipped to Jackie. But we thought we needed to do more for Harlan. We had our design team redesign the packaging with Harlan on the front and put 5000 into production overnight.

We shipped these out to Jackie and Harlan and Harlan's mother described it as a small ray of sunshine on what were some very, very dark days. It was an example of when the mission became the most important thing. It wasn’t about money or doing anything other than solving that problem for that child. That gave us such a deep sense of purpose it was rocket fuel for the company for years to follow.

You've been in the enviable position to have worked as founder/CEO on what have been your passions in life. Any advice for a brand manager working on a brand that is not their own?

You have to live the life of the people that you’re serving. If you don’t intimately do that, then put yourself in their world. It’s like method acting. The subtle nuances of life experience will translate into intimate insights for the brand. Better yet, align yourself with an industry you are already passionate about. When you’re doing what you love, tapping into your talents, in an area you’re passionate about, it moves from being work to being your life's work.

What practices are you putting in place at Habit so that the intimate knowledge of who you serve isn't just coming from you?

We hire lifestylers. We hire nutritionists, CrossFitters, marathon runners, people that are into health and wellness. So we literally hire the people we serve. We’ve also enlisted 50 Habit ambassadors. They are people who have already signed up because they’re passionate about Habit, and we’re going to use them as our sounding board. So any of us can have access to a community of people in the area that we’re working in.

Though it’s not enough just to get the group together. You have to actually have the capability and talent to pull the ideas out. What’s great is that design thinking has become democratised. Searching 'design thinking' results in a plethora of insight tools and creative exercises that are downloadable and easily executable. I would encourage people to do that.

You're a big believer in working smarter, not necessarily harder. What does 'working smart' look like?

In the early days of Plum Organics, we were a small group of parents taking on Nestlé, the largest food company in the world. We had to work long hours in very pressured, intense situations. That experience on reflection allows us to now focus on the right things, and not try to do everything. It's getting everyone to ruthlessly focus on the top three things that will make the company a success. That’s how you get to working smarter, and not longer and harder.

How can CEOs and leaders at big companies embody and encourage challenger behaviours?

Rapid change is happening across almost every industry. We’re seeing technological disruption. We’re seeing a generational disruption, the brands that used to be relevant to baby boomers aren’t as relevant to millennials. I don’t think anyone or any brand is insulated from that. Whether a brand or individual, the role of a challenger within an organisation is to be the champion of a new generation and of the idea that there is a better way.

The leaders of those big organisations need to embrace the idea that change is going to happen and it had better be driven internally than be driven by external forces. They need those changemakers and they’re going to look different, they’re going to sound different, and they’re going to act differently than the majority of the people in the company, and they actually need the room and the freedom to do that with a good bit of insulation.

What has been fundamental to get right in launching Habit in terms of the offices and working environment?

We can all get very disconnected in business from not only the consumers we serve but what we all do each day. So we have different disciplines at the company. We have life sciences, we have technology, and we have food. Our software developers can look through a big glass window and see that we’re making food every day, and vice versa. We wanted everyone working here to experience every aspect of what we do.

What three bits of advice do you have for a budding entrepreneur?

The first one is make it personal, it’s got to be something that you deeply care about that has personally touched your life. The second is be all in. This is the equivalent of getting sleeve tattoos. Don’t have a Plan B or a Plan C. Make Plan A, B and C be the success of your company. And the third is make it happen. You have to have that action mindset, and avoid analysis paralysis. Do iterative product development, experiment and get on with prototyping.